One Carlo Diaz
Do you ask a chef or server for their recommendations when dining out at a new restaurant? In the current foodscape of set and omakase menus – whereby what is put on your plate is left to the chef’s discretion – it is also common practice among discerning diners to ask for suggestions from in-the-know staff when presented with an a la carte menu of an unfamiliar eatery.
To that end, The National’s Taste Test series takes you inside the latest restaurants just before they open their doors, and ask chefs what dishes they would recommend and what makes them special, for you to then order (or, indeed, avoid).
This guide should also serve well those foodies who want to tick or cross off the latest restaurants from their culinary bucket list, which can be a Herculean task in the UAE, where no fewer than a dozen restaurants are unveiled month on month.
Inside Berenjak, Dubai
The Persian restaurant opens today at Dar Wasl mall along Al Wasl Road in Dubai.
It is the first international outpost of the original Berenjak from Soho, London, brought to the UAE by Belhasa Hospitality, which also has Table Otto and Ben’s Cookies under its belt.
The dim-verging-on-dark venue benefits from opulent chandeliers hanging overhead. The open kitchen provides an inviting energy, while the rest of the venue feels serene and muted with its earthy colour palette. The decor carries a Persian influence, with intricate rugs, tilework with Oriental patterns and themed portraits.
With a seating capacity of 140 between its indoor and outdoor sections, the Dubai outpost combines the charm of the Soho branch and the cosy ambience of the Borough Townhouse location, says chef-founder Kian Samyani, who recommends diners try the following five dishes.
“You can find this in every Iranian restaurant, but we do it differently,” says Samyani. “It is normally made of white flour, salt, oil, sugar and yeast, but we don’t use yeast. We use a sourdough starter that’s 24 years old. We cook it to order, and what you get is a really crisp back and a fluffy front.”
Taste test: Although I am more of a rice person, this bread holds its own as the perfect side for all the other dishes on the table. It is light and fluffy with a crispy crust that provides textural variety, especially when dipped in the soft mezze trio (more on these below). The hint of smokiness is elevated by the slight nutty flavour and garnish of seeds. A must-have accompaniment no matter what else you order.
Meze trio: Hummus, kashk bademjoon and mast-o-khiar
“With the taftoon, you have to have three things, which combine both hot and cold flavour profiles,” explains Samyani. “The kashke bademjoon with aubergine, garlic and onion works perfectly with the black chickpea hummus, while the cucumber yoghurt provides a neutral flavour for balance.”
Taste test: The trio is ordered separately, but I can vouch for the chef’s recommendation that they should all come as one. The hummus is on the sweeter end, and is pureed to immaculate levels. The aubergine provides a smoky and savoury kick, while the yoghurt perfectly cuts through the richness of the other two. All of these dishes add the perfect flavour strokes to the taftoon bread canvas. Feel free to dig in with your hands.
“I’ve always wanted to put chicken wings on the menu, and make them spicy and garlicky, so people want to have more of it,” says Samyani. “We marinade ours in fermented red pepper paste, which gives them a tangy flavour.
“Iranian restaurants usually have one marinade for meat cuts, but to a chef that’s kinda boring. The addition of the wings is also my attempt to explore the different influences on Iranian food from neighbouring countries.”
Taste test: This is hands down my favourite dish. With a generous squeeze of lemon on top, the smoky and salty wings are superbly tasty and balanced. The acidity of the lemon juice dampens the richness of the skin. The spice level not too hot to handle, and it’s the charcoal flavour that is most pleasingly prominent. Another one where hands trump cutlery.
Jujeh and koobideh kebab
“This combination of kebab is most popular in Iranian restaurants everywhere,” says Samyani. “The chicken is opulent and luxurious, marinated as it is in saffron, onion and tomatoes. We create layers of flavours by marinating in stages. We obsess about our koobideh, which is made of pure lamb. This really is a labour of love, and is based on how my father makes it. We take the best quality lamb shoulder, and again, marinade it in stages to lock in all the flavours.
“We then rest all the kebabs to allow the meat to recover from the extreme hot and cold process of cooking them and keep them tender.”
Taste test: When it comes to kebabs, juicy is the only way to go, and both the chicken and lamb versions served here positively dripping, as evidenced by the thin bread underneath that was deliciously soaked. These meat types are not easy to perfect, and if not grilled correctly, can leave an odd aftertaste. But if there’s one thing Berenjak knows, is its way around the grill.
The marinade does not overpower, so the meat still tastes fresh. The chicken breast also benefits from the fat content of the lamb shoulder, resulting in a dish that is satisfying, but not too heavy (although the chicken was a bit too salty for my palate).
Date and walnut cookie
“Persian cookies or koloocheh usually come with walnut paste in the middle. We wanted to recreate what is essentially a boring biscuit and elevate it. We use brown butter as the base with Medjool dates, walnuts and muscovado sugar. You need to have this with hot tea, and it’s just the perfect way to end your Iranian meal,” recommends Samyani.
Taste test: The cookies are light and not overly sweet, despite the combination of the muscovado and Medjool. The nutty flavour is beautifully intensified by the brown butter, while the tea balances the cookies with its slight bitterness. After a rather heavy meal, this cookie-tea combination makes for the perfect conclusion.